A scientific name clearly designates a particular bird species, tells you something about the bird’s relationship to other bird species, and usually provides a decent description of the bird. Common names are less useful for the former but apt for the latter. The obvious advantage common names have is their much easier pronunciation and spelling. And for English names, at least, the International Ornithologists’ Union has recommended English common names and set standards for spelling and construction. There are still many problems with common names due to their long history and local variations.
There are common names like the Zitting Cistocola, Plain Chachalaca, Kea, and Phainopepla that tell you nothing about the bird. Same with names named after people, like Abert’s Towhee oe Salvin’s Chuckwill, but there has been a movement to eliminate the personal name from the common name and incorporate it into the scientific name instead. Oenanthe phillipsi, Phillip’s Wheatear, became the Somali Wheatear, and Salvin’s Chuckwill is now the Tawny-colored Nightjar. Helpfully, there are many common names that closely reflect the scientific name such as the Green-headed Oriole, Oriolus chlorocephalus, and Chen caerulescens, the Snow or Blue Goose. But the opposite is also true; Ploceus melanogaster, meaning black-bellied weaver, has the common name of Black-billed Weaver; and Myrmeciza melanoceps, the White-shouldered Antbird, whose scientific name means Black-headed Antbird. Sometimes the common name includes part of the scientific name such as Oxylabes madagascarensis, the White-throated Oxylabes, Phainopepla nitens, the Phainopepla, and Rhabdornis mysticalis, the Stripe-headed Mysticalis.
Some common names have been changed for clarification or simplification: the Celebes Bearded Bee-eater has been shortened to the Celebes Bee-eater, the Lance-billed Monklet has become the Lanceolated Monklet and Mayr’s Streaked Honeyeater is now simply Mayr’s Honeyeater.
Some common names come from the bird’s calls, such as Chachalaca and Kaka ; these are onomatopoeic words as they phonetically imitate the call.
Odd things happen as well. Some common names mislead the reader; for example, a Western Meadowlark is a not a lark, but a blackbird. The Red-bellied Woodpecker has a not very obvious pinkish wash on its belly and the neck ring of the Ring-necked Duck is almost impossible to see in the field. Dove and pigeon are used pretty interchangeably, the difference being that the former is of Anglo-Saxon origin and the latter French. Same for the Germanic-derived name heron and the French-derived egret appellation.
There are lots of regional and country differences. Europeans call cormorants shags and while Americans call Buteo species hawks, the British call them buzzards. There are also spelling differences like grey vs gray and colour vs color; the International Ornithologists’ Union standards lean toward using the British spelling.
Common names, like the scientific names, keep evolving. The familiar Rock Dove, Columbia livia, has been called the Rock Pigeon, Carrier Pigeon, Common Pigeon, Homing Pigeon, and Feral Pigeon. The Goldcrest was once known as the Woodcock Pilot as it arrived in the spring a few days before the Eurasian Woodcock.
Although both common and scientific naming are dynamic processes, there are standards for both. And it is certainly nice to be able to speak of the Coppersmith Barbet instead of the tongue-twisting Megalaima haemacephala!